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Students have hepatitis A

| Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003

One or more Beaver County high school students might represent the first secondary cases of hepatitis A, those that are not directly connected to the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant, a state official said Saturday.

A "small number" of students at South Side Area School District have contracted hepatitis A, and officials of the state Health Department hope to know by Monday whether their cases are related to the recent disease outbreak, Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey said. He declined to say exactly how many students have the disease.

The district sent letters Friday to the parents of students at the high school to alert them that a hepatitis A case was reported there and telling them to be alert for indications of the disease, McGarvey said.

"They should take normal precautions and be watchful for symptoms," McGarvey said.

Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, vomiting or jaundice. Parents worried that their child might be exhibiting those indicators should consult a doctor or go to a hospital emergency room for help, he said.

The Health Department has confirmed 640 people, including three who died, got hepatitis A by eating or working at a Chi-Chi's restaurant about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The restaurant is about 10 miles from the high school the sick students attend.

Fewer than five possible secondary cases have been reported in Beaver County, McGarvey said. Because they are coming at the closing edge of the 50-day incubation period for anyone who ate at the Chi-Chi's restaurant, the Health Department suspects they might have been passed along from someone who contracted the disease at the restaurant.

The state has not yet confirmed any secondary cases.

"This is a case that all of Beaver County is working through," said Keith Pistorius, president of the South Side Area School Board. "We've sent home information packets for students and parents alerting them to the secondary cases. People can't let their guards down, and people have to maintain hygiene and keep washing their hands."

Hepatitis A typically is transferred through fecal matter by people who have the disease and do not wash their hands before touching or preparing food that is ingested by another person, McGarvey said.

Pistorius said he has not received panicked phone calls from parents, and he said the district, overall, has not had many students develop hepatitis A from the recent outbreak.

"I'm surprised we haven't had more, but I think places closer to Chi-Chi's have been hit harder," he said. "Right now, we're focused on keeping everybody safe and informed."

The district also has enacted some temporary health guidelines.

It will allow no homemade treats to be brought to its schools. All foods must be commercially prepared, sealed and store-bought. Cafeteria workers must wear gloves, and only cafeteria workers will be allowed in food preparation areas for the time being.

Some students said they're taking other precautions.

"I'm just trying to keep away from ... eating anybody else's food or just staying way from any contact from anybody pretty much," high school student Andrew Gergen said. "I just keep to myself, mostly."

Staff writer Ellen James and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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